After reading coverage of Wednesday’s City Council vote to increase overnight Staten Island ferry service, I’m beginning to believe that mentioning the potential 59-minute wait for a boat as a Staten Island rite of passage is required by law. So here you go: It is a rite of passage for Staten Islanders to mistime their arrival at Whitehall St., miss a boat and be stuck waiting around for an hour in a rather drab ferry terminal as 1 a.m. slowly turns into 2 a.m. Not any longer.
In what I believe was a unanimous vote, the City Council approved a measure to increase ferry service such that boats will leave no less frequently than every 30 minutes throughout the day. The new law contains phased implementation. Until May 1, 2015, ferries must run at least every 30 minutes until 2 a.m., and after May 1, 2015, service throughout the night must be on half-hour intervals. The law is set to take effect immediately, but the Mayor may not sign it immediately. Though the bill has enough votes to override a Bloomberg veto, it will likely be up to his success to implement — and pay for — the new service.
There is an out as well though in that if DOT and the mayor determine that “it is not economically feasible to fully expand service,” the city can issue a report explaining why they aren’t expanding all service and must reassess the decision every two years. Such a review will have to include ridership figures, economic development and population changes, and plans for future expansion of ferry service. It’s an intriguing loophole that relies on an interpretation of “feasible” that remains hazy. Considering the ferries are subsidized entirely by the city, what does “economically feasible” even mean in this situation?
SI politicians began to praise the move a few days ago when it became clear the measure would pass. “I think it is a very powerful message to send to the residents, the commuters and the potential investors in the North Shore — that it’s open for business and that there is a consistent means of transportation,” Council member James Oddo said.
Debi Rose compared the situation to waiting for a subway. “I am so excited that this long-awaited legislation is moving forward. This bill is about basic fairness — waiting an hour or more for the ferry at night and on weekends is an unacceptable situation which is not tolerated in any other borough,” the North Shore representative said.
Now, it’s all well and good to expand ferry service, and it’s a noble gesture. Does it make sense? City officials estimated that the full overnight service could cost $15 million per year more, bringing the total cost to run the ferry to $115 million. Meanwhile, an Independent Budget Office analysis earlier this year called for an end to overnight ferry service entirely. On a typical weekday, just 2-3 percent of the daily 61,000 riders use the ferry between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m., and the smallest boats fit over 1100 people with nine crew members. Replacing these ferries with express buses would save the city around $4 million. Economically feasible indeed.
Meanwhile, I still wonder about the wisdom of a free ferry ride. It’s possible to get from a home near St. George to a job on Wall St. without paying a dime whereas anyone traveling via subway between boroughs has to pay a fare. Is there a way to capture some fare revenue on the Staten Island ferry while ensuring that daily commuters don’t suffer through a two-fare trip? It’s an operational challenge that isn’t impossible to overcome, and the revenue from, say, tourists or other non-regular riders could offset the costs of an increasingly expensive service. It’s also a political non-starter amongst a particularly prickly group of politicians.